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Is a Venetian Gondola Ride a Giant Waste of Money?

Is the quintessential experience worth it or overrated?

Ah, the Venetian gondola. No boat is more instantly recognizable, with its lacquered hull and pointed prow. Decked in gold, from the embroidered pillows to the hammered leaves, with the gondoliers in striped t-shirts, the spiffy black pants, and the occasional straw hat––no vessel is more touristy, save the Disney Jungle Cruise. None is so pricey, either. It’s 100 euros for a mere half hour at sunset.

But is this quintessential Venetian experience actually worth it?

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An Iconic Experience

This was my third time visiting Venice, nearly 35 years since my first trip when my parents brought a wide-eyed seven-year-old who was more fascinated with Italy’s tiny cans of Sprite than the basilicas and frescos. I spent two days again at 32, when I stayed cheap-as-possible, in a twin-bed, fan room just off the Rialto Bridge.

The Grand Canal

Now, well into my 42nd year, I found myself in Venice, with my maid-of-honor in tow.

I am getting married in April of 2023. The fiancé and I planned a packed, 18-month engagement because we wanted COVID well out of the picture (if such a thing is even possible), and we wanted to travel. I wanted to take my best friend (now maid of honor) to Italy––to a city she’s longed to see and one I longed to return to. We arrived in Venice with no agenda other than vague announcements like, “Let’s lunch at the Gritti Palace one afternoon,” and “The Accademia Bridge is supposed to be amazing for sunrise.” No agenda, well, except one––to take a gondola ride.

You Cannot Take a Sunrise Gondola Ride

I decided to try and book a sunrise ride. With empty canals, the effect for my camera more akin to Venice’s heyday, when the wealthy merchants used these vessels as regular taxis. That practice started in the 11th century. Okay. You cannot take a sunrise gondola ride. Let me tell you, I tried. I scoured the internet for a private company, and I peppered our hotel concierge with requests.

“Go talk to a gondola driver,” he replied. I talked to at least four gondola drivers in four different neighborhoods, begging for a 6 a.m. pickup. I offered more money. They just shook their heads.

I then went to the Gondola Shipyard, where they repair the boats. It was very cool to see––as was the nearby, petite, museum of gondolas––but it turns out that the rules regarding the gondolas are unflappable.

No gondolas are allowed in the canals before 9 a.m. This allows for Venice’s trash boats and working vessels to do their due diligence.

Sunset: The Best Option

Thus, we opted for sunset. We rocked up to the loading pier at San Tomá pier, one of 11 piers in the city for rides, right at 6:45 p.m.

Tip 1: The Time of Day Matters

I’m a photographer, and lighting was crucial to me. I knew my camera’s shutter speed would be low and the boat would be rocking, so I wanted dusk, but not dark. However, if you nail the timing, you get dusk and total darkness. Night provides its own romance––that return to the Venice of old. Gondola drivers stay on the same routes all day, loading and unloading at the same piers. Expect to wait anywhere from 5 to 10 minutes if no one is in front of you. Make note of this. If you choose a busier area, like St. Marks, you may find a very long line.

Tip 2: Choose Your Location Wisely

There is no bad vantage in Venice. Everywhere you turn, it’s resplendent, adorned in ancient architecture and emerald-green water. The Grand Canal is jaw-dropping, from the Rialto Bridge to the Basilica Santa Maria della Salute. In the tiny canals, you connect with the bygone Venice––with the sound of paddles dipping in the inky water and the clinking of glasses as you pass small osterias. The buildings rise up on either side of you and low bridges force the drivers to duck. Almost all gondola rides include a bit of both. I, personally, preferred the back canals. If that’s what you crave, choose a gondola pier like Bacino Orseolo, off the main artery.

Tip 3: Talk to Your Driver

The history is fascinating. Gondolas are made from eight types of wood, originally built to ferry wealthy Venetians through canals too skinny for regular vessels. Now, the once 10,000 have dwindled to roughly 650. It takes drivers a year to be licensed, and a law dating to the 16th century requires all gondolas to be painted black. The prow provides a counterweight for the gondolier, and the boats may have only three flourishes, including golden seahorses at the beam.

Tip 4: Cost

The pricing is set. From 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., it’s 80 euros for 35 minutes, plus 50 euros for an additional 20 minutes. At 7 p.m., the pricing rises to 100 euros. I heard rumors that you could bribe your gondola driver to go a bit longer. This proved impossible in our boat. Marco would not budge. I tried flirting. I tried cajoling. I even offered to take him to dinner. (Don’t tell the fiancé.)

Tip 5: Gondolas Are Not the Only Option

We arranged for a private water taxi ride one morning over to Burano, a colorful island famous for lace. It was 100 euros, and we rode through the canals, into the lagoon, and spent 40 minutes cruising through the open water around Venice in a stunning, teak speedboat. Remember, gondolas are not the only way to enjoy the water here.

Is a 35-Minute Gondola Ride Worth 100 Euros?

The American dollar is as strong as it’s been in 20 years, at one-to-one with the euro. That made it feel like I was (weirdly) getting a deal. Part of me was also just awash in romance––not only with Venice, but with this time in my life. I’m planning a wedding, and I’m totally in love.

With my fiancé, of course, but also in the return of travel; with my newly titled maid-of-honor, and with celebrating our decade of friendship. Maybe I had on rose-tinted glasses for my gondola ride, but I teared up in the quietest moments. I left my camera in my lap for plenty of it, to properly capture it in memory. For more than a thousand years, people have glided through these storied canals, looking up from rocking boats to take in some of the world’s most beautiful buildings. I’ll never go to Venice again without riding in a gondola. That I can say for sure.

dorism6220 October 14, 2022

We had the grumpiest, unfriendly gondoleer and would never go back becasue of him.